Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell Thursday defended his plan to restore civil rights to nonviolent felons, calling it an important step in a prisoner's rehabilitation towards rejoining society.
"When you've paid your debt, we'll be able to restore your civil rights," the Republican said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program. "It's about participating in democracy."
Answering critics' claims that his plan shows a government that is soft on crime, McDonnell insisted Virginia has a tradition of being tough on criminals, but added that "once your sentence is done, justice requires your re-entrance to society."
McDonnell announced his plan on Wednesday to automatically restore the civil rights of nonviolent felons on an individual basis once their sentences have been served. Currently, felons who have served out their sentences and paid all their fines can apply for the restoration of their civil rights, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch
, but it's a two-year process.
Under McDonnell's plan, the rights to vote, serve on a jury, and run for public office would be restored immediately. The governor's plan, however, makes no changes to restrictions of rights for prisoners convicted of violent felonies. They still would have to wait five years after sentences to apply to have their rights restored.
"I think it brings about the final measure of reconciliation and the final measure of healing, both for the offender and for society," McDonnell said Wednesday in a speech in Richmond. "America is a land of opportunity and second chances, a land where we cherish and protect our constitutional rights. For those who have fully paid their debt for their crimes, they deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights."
Initially, McDonnell's plan, which takes effect July 15, is expected to restore voting rights of more than 100,000 Virginians.Ben Jealous, national chairman of the NAACP, applauded the governor's action on "Morning Joe," calling it an important measure for the state that "crosses the divide of politics."
Kentucky now is the only state without automatic restoration of rights once sentences have been served. McDonnell was forced to use his executive authority to put the plan in place after his own Republican-controlled House of Delegates rejected a constitutional amendment that would have made rights restoration automatic.
McDonnell's move was supported, however, by GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli and his Democratic challenger Terry McAuliffe.
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